Kipling’s Wisdom

The beginning of October marked the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the American-led bombardment of Afghanistan. Seven years later, the Taliban are still fighting. Some 50 insurgents died recently in an assault on Lashkar gar, the capital of Helmand province. Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found. Has the time come for NATO to declare victory and leave?

Recently, a French diplomatic cable relating a conversation on September 2 between the French ambassador to Afghanistan, Francois Fitou, and his British colleague, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was leaked in Le Canard Enchainé , a French satirical magazine. Cowper-Coles was reported to have said that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, that NATO’s presence was making it worse, and that the two American presidential hopefuls should be dissuaded from getting bogged down further. The only realistic policy would be to cultivate an “acceptable dictator.” Of course, the British Foreign Office denied that these thoughts reflected the British government’s views.

The departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, has claimed that defeating the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable.” Two days after making that gloomy assessment, the French chief of the defense staff, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, followed suit. And Kai Eide, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative in Afghanistan, has agreed that the situation cannot be stabilized by military means alone. All call for a concerted political effort implying some form of negotiation with the Taliban.

A draft report by American intelligence agencies has also concluded that Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” and casts serious doubt on the Afghan government’s ability to stem the Taliban’s resurgence. Moreover, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a Ramadan breakfast for the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Predictably, both parties deny that any serious negotiations took place, while the United States and Britain claimed to know nothing about this “Saudi initiative.” But Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak subsequently said that resolution of the conflict required a “political settlement” with the Taliban.

Yet at the recent NATO summit in Budapest, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on NATO members to provide more troops for missions in Afghanistan. He accused the British of being “defeatist” and argued that Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation could be addressed with an Iraq-style “surge,” which has undoubtedly brought down violence levels in that country. The Americans have already committed 8,000 extra troops for next year.

So there seems to be a split. The British and French are busy briefing, and preparing to scale down their commitments in Afghanistan. They believe that boosting allied forces will only increase the sense of occupation and give the Taliban more targets. The emergence of a “realistic dictator” might allow NATO to withdraw most of its troops within a few years.

But the Americans want a “surge,” and the US general commanding NATO forces in the country said last month that he needed three more brigades, some 15,000 troops in all, and Gates has asked the Europeans either to send or pay for them. The Americans do recognize the importance of courting those Taliban leaders they believe to be motivated by tribal loyalties rather than religious ideology, but they oppose the latest Afghan policy of negotiating directly and officially with the Taliban.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain advocate increasing troop levels in Afghanistan above the levels that the Bush administration has already pledged. Obama has that said he would send troops from Iraq as an urgent priority. McCain has given no details of his plans. Obama has made it a campaign issue to criticize the Bush administration for neglecting Afghanistan and diverting resources needed there to the misguided war in Iraq. McCain, though, has always maintained that Iraq is the more important battlefield.

What candidates promise on the stump is not always what they do in office. In the second presidential debate, Obama said, “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda.” Are his patriotic credentials strong enough for him to renege on this pledge and pursue negotiations to withdraw without capturing the talismanic Osama? What would a US withdrawal mean for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, and for the future of NATO? To retreat from its first major “out of area” mission would be a damaging blow for the alliance.

Curiously, McCain may have more room for maneuver. Republican presidents have a better record in negotiating with enemies than do Democratic ones. Eisenhower ended the Korean War, Nixon the war in Vietnam – both wars started by their Democrat predecessors. Nixon, a vitriolic anti-Communist, opened relations with Mao’s China and started détente with the Soviet Union. Reagan brought the US hostages back from Iran. Having condemned the “evil empire” of communism, he helped bring the Cold War to an end. Only recently, George W Bush evicted North Korea from his “axis of evil” by removing that country from America’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

And what about the British? Have they suddenly remembered the unsustainable cost of fighting asymmetric conflicts? Afghanistan has never been a place any foreign army could stay for long. The British were burned there twice (1840-1, 1878-80). So were the Russians.

Rudyard Kipling got his arithmetic right in 1886:

No proposition Euclid wrote,

No formulae the text-books know,

Will turn the bullet from your coat,

Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow

Strike hard who cares – shoot straight who can –

The odds are on the cheaper man.